Wednesday, October 31, 2018

Meetings With Remarkable Monsters

Vezelay, France

 This ancient saying, chosen by me for the beginning of the second series of my writings, is formulated thus: 

Only he will deserve the name of man and can count upon anything
prepared for him from Above, who has already acquired corresponding data for being able to preserve intact both the wolf and the sheep confided to his care.

 A 'psycho-associative philological analysis' of this saying of our ancestors which was made by certain learned men of our times—of course not from among those breeding on the continent of Europe—clearly showed that the word 'wolf' symbolizes the whole of the fundamental and reflex functioning of the human organism and the word 'sheep' the whole of the functioning of a man's feeling. As for the functioning of a man's thinking, this is represented in the saying by the man himself…

G. I Gurdjieff, Meetings With Remarkable Men, P. 5 (Introduction)

March 24. I’ll confess, it’s been some time since I read this book, although I have read it several times. Yet this particular passage was brought up at lunch this afternoon; and since there seemed to be some consternation about exactly what he meant when he said this, I thought the passage was worthy of closer examination.

A cursory glance at the subject yields the insight that Gurdjieff is, here, speaking of man’s three “centers,” or, the three different minds that rule his ordinary being — the body, the emotions, and the intellect. The wolf represents the body — which in its lower part represents the ravenous beast, but in its most developed state is represented by organic sensation. The sheep represents the emotions, which in their lower part are followers and imitators, timid and often useless. In their higher nature they express feeling, which is a sacred quality. And the third part, the intellect, represents itself in words, the silly thing.

The critical point in this passage, I think, is the word intact.

What does Gurdjieff mean when he says “being able to preserve intact?”

For this, we must turn once again, as I so often do, to the practice of etymology, or, word origins. Gurdjieff himself was quite interested in this subject and was very careful in his choice of words for translations from his Russian originals.

The word intact, which entered the language in ordinary use sometime before 1500, means unimpaired, whole, or, most importantly here — untouched. It was borrowed directly from Latin intāctus, meaning not touched.

In this way, Gurdjieff has already given us an indicator that a man needs to contain both his physical impressions and his emotional impressions in an objective sense, that is, “untouched.” This is in every sense identical to his instruction not to become “identified,” or subjectively involved with, the impressions of these minds.

It also means, on a second level, the capacity for allowing these minds to function as they were meant to, without interference.

This means the impressions from the two minds ought to be allowed to flow in objectively, without being manipulated by the repository of past association which so powerfully influences everything we experience, and most especially what we think. This finds echoes — and powerful ones — in Jeanne Salzmann’s continued exhortations to take in the world as it is, without applying forms. Instructions and insights to this effect are peppered throughout her notes as they appear in The Reality of Being.

Paramount in absorbing the complex lesson that this deceptively simple comment introduces is to understand that each of the animals is a very different thing. The wolf has one set of needs and perceptions that in no way, shape, or form corresponds to the needs and perceptions of the sheep; and both of them are animals, categorically incapable of intellectual thinking on the level that the man operates. Nonetheless, both of them are much cleverer than the man in their own way, on the terms in which they inhabit Being.

Extending the analogy a bit later in the passage by bringing up the cabbage — which rather transparently represents the mind, given its layers and its shape—we note here that the sheep (our emotions) are able, like an esoteric version of zombies, to “eat the brain.” We are indeed consumed by our emotions; and little more need be said about the danger of that.

The wolf, in its turn, can eat the sheep — that is to say, physical cravings of any kind can overcome emotions such as fear, prudence, and so on. The man turns into a wolf here… a werewolf. The wolf will do almost anything, for example, to get food and sex, even if the emotions are forced to suffer terribly in the process.

Either way, as long as the intellect is involved with either one of these creatures as an accomplice — or bludgeoned bystander — it is impossible for the intellect to play its theoretical role as the police man of the situation, who alone is capable of determining sound courses of action in which these other two parts don’t harm each other and their owner. The intellect, for its own part, is not just a cabbage but a Frankenstein creature, a patchwork of past associations each one of which used to be alive, but has now been reassembled in a walking, talking imitation of conscious humanity… not the real thing, but an incredible simulation.

Gurdjieff’s exhortation, then, is one extolling the virtues of mindfulness — conscious awareness. On one level, it implies responsibility and supervision (which is its apparent meaning, at first glance) and on the next level it represents self observation, noninterference, and an objective experience of sensation and feeling.

Much more can be said about that, but perhaps this sketch gives you some inkling of how carefully one needs to examine things Gurdjieff said. Even the simplest statements have multiple layers in them, much like the symbolism of capitals on columns in Gothic cathedrals. We take their first and literal meaning at face value at our own peril; because there is always much more going on here than meets the eye.

Notes from The Treatise on Metaphysical Humanism will resume on Nov. 3.

Happy Halloween!


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

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